I once dined in a restaurant with my boyfriend on Halloween while a white gentleman ate his meal across from us decked out in head-to-toe blackface. New film Dear White People seemed like it was going to put into more dignified words what I was thinking that fateful night: “Oh, no, this mofo didn’t.” It seemed that it was going to use its clear inspiration—Spike Lee—as a springboard to build upon the ideas laid out in both Do The Right Thing and School Daze. It seemed like given the current climate in America—Ferguson, Stop & Frisk, Mike Brown, the annual race-themed parties that are thrown at college campuses every Halloween, etcetera— Dear White People was going to be the film that would shake up cinema this year. It seemed like a film that would bring something new to the table. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. Despite the incendiary title and subject matter, Dear White People is rather lackluster. The movie feels so concerned with showing its intelligence via windy speeches that it loses the point of why it was made in the first place: to be a knockout film. But it’s not for a lack of trying.
Dear White People is what I like to call “good points” cinema (AKA movies that bring up valid arguments, but aren’t quite entertaining or engaging) with a dash of African-American Studies 101 and a pinch of “I’ve watched Spike’s entire canon.” The film offers a satirical take on racial tension nationwide by focusing on the lives of four students at a fictional Ivy League campus called Winchester College. Forceful revolutionary and biracial student Sam White (Tessa Thompson) has a podcast entitled Dear White People, which has passionate supporters (like-minded people of color) and detractors (white people) thanks to her often biting—and sometimes funny—commentary. Troy (Brandon P. Bell), is the son of the school Dean and wants to be on the school’s all-white humor magazine. Coco (Teyonah Parris) is ashamed of being from the south side of Chicago and hungers for reality TV stardom. Finally, Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is a student who struggles to fit in on campus as a black and gay man. There is so much here that is representative of the black experience in America: Sam’s work to create her identity, Lionel’s experience with homophobia, Coco’s rejection of her blackness (she doesn’t want to live with the other black students and has zero romantic interest in anyone black), Troy’s trying to be the perfect black man that everyone will like and the basic idea of what our society sees as “black” and “not black.” Yet, the writing of the film is heavy-handed and none of these issues are investigated in a particularly interesting way.
For example, at one moment in the film a group of the black students, led by Sam, complains about the lack of quality black cinema—good point!—and makes jabs at Tyler Perry. That’s not the only time that happens in the movie. There are about three or four jokes at Tyler Perry’s expense. It’s 2014. We all get it. Tyler Perry, whom I am not a fan of in the slightest way, does not make high art. His lowest-common-denominator style, which has become box office gold and has employed hundreds of people of color, leaves a lot to be desired creatively. That is an excellent point. But what’s next? What is the unique commentary on Perry’s work? What is being said other than, “This guy is a hack”? How could Dear White People discuss this in a way that would move the audience? It’s simply not enough to present an argument through stiff monologues that are said at characters as if this is a speech at a debate competition. A more glaring example kind of this kind of dry writing is in a later scene between Sam and a cartoonishly preppy rich white kid named Kurt (whose father is the president of the school). During this argument, they talk about affirmative action, Obama, lynching, Republicans, and more. All important issues, but when rattled off in succession, it’s a stilted series of points. The dialogue feels not like it’s coming from finely drawn characters, but like we are sitting through a lecture rather than an engaging movie.
And that’s a shame because this could have been a damn good movie. But in order for that to happen, there needs to be nuance and depth. The problem with Dear White People is that its script paints its characters in broad strokes—that makes it easy to identify each character type, but also makes it difficult to find any of them believable. This major flaw is not an unexpected problem in a first film. Writer-director Justin Simien, who had been thinking about this project for several years, has plenty of good ideas here. I’m just not sure if he is adept enough yet to discuss these ideas or if he simply wants to talk about too many things; the film ends up not discussing any issue deeply.
Tyler James Williams plays Lionel, the “token” black gay man on campus.
Case in point: Lionel, who in my opinion is the most compelling character, has a unique storyline dealing with the intersection of his race and sexuality. Often homosexuality is discussed in this country in terms of whites, so there is rarely acknowledgement of how being a double minority is even more difficult. While Dear White People briefly touches on this, the film doesn’t dig deep enough to make the issue really resonate. Lionel struggles in some ways to fit in with the black kids because he’s gay, but it turns out it’s really just because he likes Robert Altman movies and he doesn’t think they do. Meanwhile, the white people on campus are over-the-top in their homophobia towards him. This is clearly a missed opportunity to address the existence of homophobia in the black community—hello, 99% of mainstream hip-hop—and instead makes it seem like white people are the only close-minded ones. That refusal to look inward on issues that aren’t easy to discuss and instead focus the film on tried-and-true topics such as interracial dating, which has been dealt with ad nauseum in film (Jungle Fever, anyone?), feels like a hugely missed opportunity to make a current and compelling film.
Despite the chances not taken in terms of storytelling and filmmaking, there are also plenty of reasons to be excited about Dear White People. Simien took what started out as a crowd-funded film and turned it into a pop culture phenomenon. He is addressing race on his own terms without the meddling that usually happens with artist’s work. He is opening a door in Hollywood and showing that grassroots indie projects helmed by people of color can break through into the mainstream—a luxury only afforded white films. I just wish he were able to combine his earnest intentions with an ability to tell a story in a compelling way that doesn’t feel disjointed and, more importantly, moves the conversation forward.
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